Ever since the devastating fires that roared through my Northern California town in the hot, dry October of 2017, I’ve been signed up for alerts on my cell phone. When another fire started and quickly grew out of control last year, and thousands of county residents had to flee, the phone alerts let me know who had to evacuate and who might return home.
At other times, I get alerts from the local police or county sheriff about roads having been closed, generally because some crime has occurred, or a suspect is being sought. As the temperature warms and the winds pick up, the phone might beep and let me know there’s a vegetation fire someplace close, and later, that the fire has been put out or is under control.
In between the crime and disaster alerts are ones in which an elderly man or woman has wandered off and is now missing. Usually, this person is described as “confused at times,” or suffering from an unexplained medical condition that makes him or her vulnerable. I’m always happy to receive an update when the missing person has been found.
Occasionally, stories about missing adults appear on the nightly news. In these instances, a person has ventured out on a local trail and never returned home. Search parties head out and scour the area. Thankfully, in several recent cases, the missing persons were found, mostly unharmed.
Like many people, I pay attention to these stories and hope for a positive outcome. I might be more interested than most, though, because I am an avid hiker who at times ventures out on trails alone. One additional aspect of the latest incidents has captured my attention even more. The hikers were older. But that’s not all. They were, as the news anchors frequently reported, “elderly.”
Until I heard the first of these stories, I would never have considered myself elderly. If asked to describe a person who fit this term, I probably would have mentioned someone in a nursing home, or at least, needing care. Elderly, as I previously thought of the term, meant you couldn’t take care of yourself.
After several missing hikers were deemed elderly, I started to accept that a person over a certain age is deemed to be in this stage of life. There is middle age, so what follows must naturally be elder age. Anyone over sixty-five can’t be middle-aged, since people don’t qualify for Medicare in the midpoint of their lives. What else could they be but elderly?
Like me, there are scores of people who’ve moved beyond middle age but are vibrant with full and active lives. As I considered the word elderly, I thought about some of these folks. Could Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at the age of eighty-one, be called elderly, or might Senator Elizabeth Warren be at seventy-two?
Or how about ninety-five-year-old Tony Bennett, who at age of eighty-seven, released a CD with Lady Gaga? What about Mick Jagger, still prancing back and forth across the stage, at the age of seventy-eight The question, as it relates to me, needs to be approached with the fact that I was a late bloomer. At a time when most women are preparing to bid a child goodbye, as she heads off to college, I was starting a new, important stage of my life, one I might call “adulthood.” I married for the first time at the age of forty-eight, and bought my first house two years later, at fifty. A few years after that, my husband taught me how to drive. The year I turned fifty-six, I purchased my first car.
Being a childless adult, I haven’t experienced the events that mark most people’s lives as they age. I didn’t watch my kids grow up and graduate from middle school, high school, and then college. Neither did I attend my daughter’s wedding or proudly share photos of my first grandchild. In other words, I’ve lacked concrete proof to mark the passing years, which would remind me I am no longer young.
Several years back when I asked my husband to take photographs of me, for use on the cover of my forthcoming book, I was shocked to see the face of an old woman in those prints. Yes, the years have brought changes, wrinkles I never expected, along with aches in my knees, and stubborn weight around the middle, that no amount of effort at the gym can erase. But there’s also been a consistency to my life, that so far hasn’t changed.
I still walk several miles a day and lift weights three or four times a week. When I have time, I hike the Canyon Trail, at the state park close to my house, a steady uphill slog that takes me to a lovely lake at the top. I continue to learn new things, taking classes or teaching myself. Lately, I’ve even managed to resolve issues with my computer, by methodically going through instructions I found on the Internet. These facts offer some assurance that elderly is not the term people should use to describe me. That is, I was assured until Covid-19 came along.
The day before our local county public health officer issued the first shelter-in-place order in March 2020, our governor, Gavin Newsom, advised people over the age of sixty to stay at home. When I heard this, I felt singled out, punished, as if I’d done something wrong. The longer the pandemic has raged, the more it feels as if being old has become a crime.
Certain politicians have implied that the lives of older Americans are not worth saving. Interestingly, many of these same local, state and federal officials are past middle age themselves. Older people, they are saying, are nothing more than a burden, holding back economic progress, as if this virus and the resulting business fallout were all our fault.
I imagine people flouting the Covid-19 public health guidance think they’re immune, even though experts can’t say with certainty who might be safe and who is not. I do know that no one is immune from getting old, that is, if they’re lucky enough to live that long.
For most of my life, I have occupied a privileged position. Being white and growing up in a lower middle-class household, I had advantages many Americans lack. I was able to go to college, and later, to obtain an advanced degree. I’ve never gone hungry or been out of a job for any length of time. No one’s denied me anything, based on my race, religion, or skin color.
This is the only time I’ve been lumped into a class deemed unworthy of decent treatment. I will never really know how Americans of color feel and the anger that builds over years, from being on the losing end of racism. But lately I’ve gotten a small taste of the hurt that inevitably leads to anger, when others claim your life isn’t as valuable as theirs.
I can’t help thinking that those protesting mask-wearing and vaccine mandates, designed to protect the most vulnerable and keep our healthcare system functioning, have eighty-one-year-old Nancy Pelosi and seventy-nine-year-old Joe Biden to thank for stimulus checks they may have received from the government, along with extended unemployment benefits. If they are to get any more assistance, these two elders will be the people who make it happen.
That’s because Speaker Pelosi and President Biden have a wealth of experience in making things happen. They are a reminder that the term elderly, rather than denoting a loss of ability, making a person worthless in this economy, should also signify decades of knowledge and wisdom, which only years of living can bring.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.